Alice spent 18 years raising her two children. She worked for part of that time freelancing in her field, but was not employed in a traditional office environment. Now, at age 50, she is recently divorced after almost 25 years of marriage. She’s applied for over 100 positions, but despite having a degree and years of freelance experience, she’s received no offers. Alice has resignedly moved on to applying for jobs that she is overqualified for, simply to land a steady position with benefits. Even this effort is proving elusive.
Alice is far from alone. Studies have shown that it is statistically harder for women over age 50 to find a job, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been gainfully employed for the past 30 years or not.
Far from “ideal”
Nearly one out of every four people going through a divorce in the United States is over age 50. It’s a phenomenon that’s come to be known as “gray divorce,” and while it may signify that women are feeling independent and strong enough to continue on into middle age without the partner they’ve had for so long, it also creates a new problem for those who’ve been stay-at-home mothers for years: the necessity and difficulty of getting a full-time job.
The simple fact is this: women over age 50 in the marketplace may have all the motivation in the world, but they are also assigned a low economic value. Ironically, just after The New York Times reported on this very issue, top executives at the paper found themselves being sued by former employees for creating a “culture of discrimination,” particularly against older women of color, instead valuing the “ideal staffer (young, white, unencumbered with a family).”
Former stay-at-home mom seeks gainful employment
It’s interesting to compare the difficulties of women seeking jobs to the high value that stay-at-home-mothers are often assigned when it comes to divorce proceedings and the awarding of alimony. “The ‘partnership theory’ of marriage recognizes that the important contributions of a stay-at-home parent—whether a mother or a father—absolutely has a value to the family in terms of parenting, managing a household, etc.,” says Stephen McDonough, a divorce and family law attorney with Next Phase Legal in Medfield, Massachusetts.
While alimony and/or child support may help a stay-at-home mother maintain her standard of living for a period of time after divorce, McDonough points out those are (in most cases) finite sources of income. Hence, getting a job after divorce is the smart move. “We often negotiate funds as part of a settlement for a stay-at-home parent to help support career coaching on re-entering the workforce, and to identify any other obstacles a person may face to obtaining rewarding employment if returning to the workplace,” says McDonough.
Besides the satisfaction of being financially independent, a woman who enters the workforce again after divorce has better health insurance options, retirement savings, opportunities for raises, and, ideally, a supportive and engaging social life with her coworkers. She also never has to worry if something changes with her ex’s financial situation because it won’t directly impact her lifestyle. But wanting and achieving are two very different things for women over 50.
Age discrimination realities
Age discrimination is easy enough to feel and experience, but it is awfully difficult to prove, particularly when employers have the right to select their candidates based on experience, education, and skill set. “Someone re-entering the workforce in a tight job market may face an uphill battle depending on the type of job sought,” says Catharine Morisset, partner at Fisher & Phillips in Seattle, Washington.
“If you feel you have not been granted an interview or selected for a position because of your age or gender, you may have a claim, which can be asserted by filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or often a similar state or municipal agency,” says Morisset.
“What becomes more telling are successful ‘systemic discrimination’ cases, where a group of employees or the EEOC proves, through statistical analysis, that the employer’s hiring practices have a ‘disparate impact’ on members of a protected class, such as candidates over 40,” says Morisset. This is something that the women suing The New York Times execs are attempting to achieve.
While it’s impossible to completely shield yourself against age discrimination when applying for a job, you can look for warning signs that alert you ahead of time to employers who may automatically exclude women of a certain age. “Employers who ask for age on job applications – unless the job requires a certain age, like being over 21 to be a bartender – or do not state that they are an ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Employer’ should raise a red flag,” says Morisset.